ATLANTA The Atlanta Falcons were unable to turn their regular season dominance into playoff glory as they blew a 17-point lead in a soul-destroying NFC Championship loss to the visiting San Francisco 49ers.
Head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan have enjoyed five consecutive winning seasons together and four trips to the playoffs, including this year as the top seed following a 13-3 regular season record.
But they have nothing except two barely acknowledged NFC South division titles to show for it and one playoff victory, last week's narrow win against the Seattle Seahawks.
While that win, compliments of a 49-yard field goal with eight seconds to play, was celebrated across Georgia, it also contained a warning as the Falcons let a 20-point lead slip away before recovering.
On Sunday, another big lead slipped away and this time Ryan and the Falcons offense were unable to recover and missed out on a berth in the February 3 Super Bowl in New Orleans.
The Falcons got within 10 yards of the 49ers' end zone but a tipped pass and an incomplete effort from Ryan, struggling with a shoulder injury, ended the dream.
"We fell a little bit short. I thought everybody battled really hard, we just didn't make enough plays to get it done," said Ryan.
Atlanta led 24-10 at the break but were shut out by a San Francisco defense that found its feet just in time and were helped by two Ryan turnovers - an interception and a fumble that did not cost points but reduced momentum.
"I felt like the way we played in the first half, we wanted to keep that momentum going in the second half. But the two times we had chances on the plus side of the field we turned the football over," said Ryan.
"You can't do that in these types of games. We could have used points on those drives."
"Those two turnovers gave them the advantage in the turnover ratio and when you don't win the turnover ratio in the playoffs, you are not going to win the football game," he said.
While the 49ers certainly showed all their qualities, the Falcons were left feeling they threw away a real opportunity to reach what would have been the franchise's second Super Bowl appearance and first since the 1998 season.
The first half, with receiver Julio Jones on fire with two touchdown receptions on great passes from Ryan and veteran Tony Gonzalez scoring in what was almost certainly his last game, showed the Falcons at their very best.
"This is a tough pill to swallow," said defensive end John Abraham. "Even though we have to give them a lot of credit, it feels like we let them in the game in the second half. I think that is the part that will hurt the most because we had a real chance to come away with the win."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)